Ball State and Akron may be separated by less than 300 miles but Tuesday night's game at InfoCision Stadium in western Ohio will be the first time in more than four years that these MAC schools have played each other.
Ball State (4-4, 2-2 MAC) is the defending conference champion but is sitting at .500 entering the last month of the regular season. On Tuesday night, the Cardinals not only have an opportunity to take another step towards bowl eligibility, but also snap their two-game losing streak to Akron. The Zips (2-6, 1-3) are trying to put an end to their own two-game skid and also earn their second conference win for the first time since the 2018 season when they finished 2-6 in MAC play.
Akron leads the all-time series with Ball State 12-11-1 after winning the last two meetings, which came in the 2016 (35-25) and '17 seasons (31-3).
Ball State at Akron
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
When Ball State Has the Ball
After winning the MAC last season, the Cardinals returned plenty of experience and firepower on offense but the pieces have yet to completely come together. Senior quarterback Drew Plitt is completing 64 percent of his passes and has a respectable 11:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but he's only averaging 199 passing yards per game.
Plitt has All-MAC wide receivers Justin Hall (48 rec., 506 yds., 4 TDs) and Yo'Heinz Tyler (29, 305, 4) to throw to, and they along with Jayshon Jackson (38, 480, 2) all rank among the top 20 in the MAC in the conference in catches. The problem for Ball State is that those three are responsible for more than two-thirds of the team's receptions and receiving yards and all but one of Plitt's touchdown passes. The Cardinals could use a reliable fourth option to emerge so that defenses can't solely focus their coverage schemes on Hall, Tyler and Jackson.
Something else that would help would be to run the ball more effectively. Ball State is averaging 116 rushing yards per game, the second-lowest output in the MAC. Injuries along the offensive line can be attributed to the lack of production on the ground. Freshman Carson Steele is the team's leading rusher with 428 yards and five touchdowns. As a team, the Cardinals are averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
Overall, Ball State is 10th in the conference in total offense (334.4 ypg) and eighth in scoring (24.5 ppg). This a year after averaging 447 yards and 34 points per game in the Cardinals' abbreviated, eight-game 2020 campaign. The good news is that these numbers are better when you look at just conference games and Tuesday night offers a chance to boost them even more against Akron, one of the most generous defenses in the country.
The Zips are 115th and 126th, respectively, among their FBS peers when it comes to total and scoring defense. On average, Akron is giving up 449 yards and 39 points per game. Teams have run on the Zips (217.5 ypg, 21 TDs) all season long, but chances are Ball State will have plenty of success throwing against them. Don't be surprised if Plitt puts together his best game of the season.
When Akron Has the Ball
Even though the Zips are pretty much even with Ball State when it comes to yardage (333.9 per game), they are having even more trouble putting points on the board. Akron scored five touchdowns in its win over Bowling Green while totaling six in its three other MAC games so far. For the season, the Zips are averaging 19.9 points per game, which ranks them 117th nationally.
Three different quarterbacks have started games for Akron this season. Kato Nelson was the initial starter before he got hurt and missed a couple of games, which DJ Irons started. Zach Gibson has started the past two games so it's unclear who will get the start or see the most snaps on Tuesday night.
Irons has seen the most playing time, appearing in six of the team's eight games. As a passer, he's been fairly efficient (65.3 percent completion rate) and has twice as many touchdowns (eight) as interceptions (four). But he's only averaging 148.3 yards per game and 7.5 yards per pass attempt. He is the leading rusher as well with 300 yards on 90 carries (3.3 ypc). Nelson, a senior, has the most experience, but injuries have limited him to four games and his impact has been minimal. Gibson put up the best passing numbers thus far with six touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 69 percent of his attempts.
Besides a revolving door at quarterback, more than half of the Zips' receiving production has been courtesy of two players – Konata Mumpfield (41 rec., 495 yds., 6 TDs) and Michael Mathison (37, 403, 2).
After Irons, the most productive ball carrier for the team has been Jonzell Norrils, a freshman. He has totaled 287 rushing yards in six games, but more than half of those (155) came in Akron's last game against Buffalo, including a 74-yard touchdown on his first carry. As a team, Akron is averaging 123.1 rushing yards per game and has scored a total of six touchdowns on the ground in eight contests.
Defensively, Ball State ranks in the middle of the MAC in three of the four major categories. The Cardinals are 10th against the pass (236.3 ypg) but have nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdowns allowed (nine). Akron also isn't a team that's equipped to light up a defense with its passing attack, so Ball State doesn't have to drastically adjust its game plan or coverages in preparation for this game.
Things haven't gone according to plan for Ball State this season, but the defending MAC champions are just two games behind Northern Illinois for first place in the West Division. Obviously, winning out has to be the Cardinals' goal, starting on Tuesday night on the road against Akron.
Meanwhile, the Zips have already doubled their win total from head coach Tom Arth's first two seasons combined (1-17), but there's plenty of room for improvement. A win over the defending conference champs would be quite the statement for the program.
However, several of the players that helped Ball State win that MAC title are still on the roster, including the quarterback and three of the conference's most productive receivers. That combination will do more than enough damage against Akron's porous defense to give the Cardinals some momentum heading into next Wednesday's showdown at home against the aforementioned Huskies.
Prediction: Ball State 35, Akron 17
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